Explaining the epidemic of 'launch failure' among young men


WASHINGTON -- Much has been said about recent reports of lost economic ground among young, undereducated black males, despite the economic boom.

More needs to be said about another social specimen, one that white, middle-class America will find closer to home - perhaps even in their own home. I'm talking about young adult males who are not leaving home, despite gentle-but-firm hints from Mom and Dad to get out and make something of their lives.

They're not slackers. They're just, shall we say, sluggish.

Failure to Launch is a No. 1 hit movie comedy built around this theme. It stars Sarah Jessica Parker as a consultant who is hired by the parents of a guy played by Matthew McConaughey to motivate the otherwise friendly and intelligent young man to get up and show some ambition beyond video games, hooking up with young women and hanging out with his buddies, two of whom are living with their parents too.

It is, as Hollywood promoters like to say, more than just a movie. For example, Leonard Sax, a family physician and psychologist in Montgomery County, says Mr. McConaughey's character mirrors the sort of surprisingly bright but ambitionless middle- and upper-class lad he's seeing with increasing frequency in his practice.

"This phenomenon cuts across all demographics," Dr. Sax wrote in a recent Washington Post essay. "You'll find it in families both rich and poor; black, white, Asian and Hispanic; urban, suburban and rural. According to the Census Bureau, fully one-third of young men ages 22 to 34 are still living at home with their parents - a roughly 100 percent increase in the past 20 years. No such change has occurred with regard to young women. Why?"

Why, indeed? High housing costs seems to have become the most commonly accepted explanation. Some young men and women "boomerang" back home for a few years to build up a bank account and plan their futures. Some come from ethnic groups and cultures in which close family ties have produced adult kids who stay home longer.

But Dr. Sax's book, Boys Adrift: What's Really Behind the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys, to be published next year, echoes a new wave of books and articles that express growing concern about boys and young men of all races and classes who languish academically and professionally while girls and young women have flourished.

It's particularly obvious in college enrollment and academic performance, contrary to the impression left by outgoing Harvard President Lawrence Summers' controversial speculations about why women hold fewer elite professorships in the sciences than men.

Receiving much less attention than Mr. Summers' speculations as to whether women might not be as capable as men in math and science was a U.S. Department of Education report released about that same time that found girls outperforming boys academically across the board. Boys were more than 50 percent more likely than girls to repeat grades in elementary school, one-third more likely to drop out of high school and twice as likely to be identified with a learning disability.

Is something socially, genetically or hormonally happening to sap young men and boys of their will to succeed, even while their female counterparts are doing better than ever? You don't have to be an expert to realize that we tend to have vastly different expectations for boys than for girls - and not without reason.

When I recently interrogated my 16-year-old son, for example, as to why he and his blankety-blank buddies get in more trouble for messing around in class than the girls do, he explained to his clueless daddy: "Paying attention is a girl thing!" Nice try, pal. My dad didn't buy that one, either.

Christina Hoff Sommers, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has raised sparks by charging misguided feminism with hurting boys. More study is needed. After all, in this era of high divorce and separation rates at all income levels, an absence of strong male role models could be hurting boys too. As they might say at NASA, you can't "launch" without a good guidance system.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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